Out of the approximately 271 times I have nearly been run over by traffic here in Colombia, my standing in the street to photograph graffiti accounted for at least 200.
My fascination with street art stems from my impression of it as an honest medium of expression: It cannot easily be directed or manipulated by anyone other than the artist herself. For similar reasons, it cannot easily be censored or controlled. Street art tells truths — multiple, often contradicting truths, layered under fish faces or bright colors. In a country that is navigating multiple narratives of conflict and injustice, and the budding inklings of collective memory, even the street art needs the veiled layers. Tell a truth too clearly and you will be painted over.
When I left the house this Saturday morning, Bogotá was still asleep, save for its soldiers, who lined the streets more thickly than usual. It is Colombia’s Independence Day and I decided to celebrate by joining Christian on a walking tour of Bogota’s street art. Christian, a street artist himself, walked our group through the intricacies of the graffiti world. Many street artists obtain permission from building owners or the authorities to paint the exteriors, and even the ‘unpermitted’ graffiti in Colombia is considered a ‘violation’ and not a crime, birthing a vibrant street art scene. The tools are as diverse as the messages: From stencil to spray cans and paintings to paste-on stickers, street artists tackle themes ranging from feminism to the armed conflict in the country and from animal rights activism to love. I notice the love.
I notice the hearts everywhere, crawling out of the hair of painted female figures, painted onto bunnies in the place where their noses might have been. The hearts are outsized in Colombian graffiti. I also notice the teeth, sharp and massive, even on smiling fish. Pez, the Spanish artist known for them, is renowned for his so-called happy art, as his own tagline would suggest: “smiling since 1999.” I see something beyond the smiles in his creations, whether he intended that double entedre to be the case or not. My favorite literature teacher in high school changed how I see anything when, in the middle of teaching Gabriel Garcia Marquez to us (planting the seed for my later love of Colombia), she said: “It does not matter, at the end of the day, if the artist intended it. It does not matter, in fiction, if the author wanted you to see that or not. What matters is what you read, what you take away from it.”
Bastardillais a fitting complement and counterpoint to Pez. Perhaps the best known Colombian female graffiti artist, her street art depicts poverty and gender-based violence, armed conflict and feminist undertones. She paints glitter into graffitied tears so they can be visible at night — and for that, she has won my love.
Like all artist communities, the street art world is a clan and, occasionally, an incestuous one. We walked past his-and-hers graffiti, painted by lovers who were both street artists. We walked past street art scenes painted by a father and his two sons, each in their own style, with different tools. One of the sons, Rodez, is known for his images featuring multiple eyes, eyes everywhere. I first walked past that particular graffiti three years ago, hand-in-hand with my love, and I knew then that it was my favorite. It remains a favorite to this day.
It would be dishonest for Colombian graffiti to be apolitical, to not address corruption, capitalism, crime, armed conflict, poverty, and strife. The largest wall we walked past did just that, in a single narrative composed by four artists, featuring images of former Colombian president Uribe, Bob Marley, ants with guns, pineapple grenades, sacks of money, soldiers, and an almost eerily smiling Marilyn Monroe. It was almost too much, too raw, too perfectly symbolic a display of today’s Colombia. And, at the same time, it needs the smiling fish and the creatures with huge hearts. It is only once you place all the images side by side that you begin to get a complete picture, pixelating the pain with love, infusing the injustice with the colors of optimism.
Should you find yourself in Colombia, I could not recommend the Bogotá Graffiti Walking Tour more heartily. Bring comfortable shoes, your best squint to see the details, and an open heart.